The United States State Department is calling on Germany to operate transparently in returning Nazi-confiscated artworks unearthed in a Munich apartment to their rightful owners, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday, quoting a U.S. official.
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The call comes as legal experts say restrictive German property laws could make it difficult for heirs to the original owners to reclaim seized or looted works soon—and could even force much of the trove to be returned to the man in whose apartment it was found.
Meanwhile, the man himself appears to have disappeared, only days after it was reported that a treasure trove of Nazi-looted art had been found. German authorities say they don't know where he is.
The cache, consisting of some 1,400 works the Nazis looted from Jews in World War II, was seized by German customs officials about two years ago. Dating from the 16th century to the avant-garde, the art includes previously unknown paintings by Marc Chagall and Otto Dix, among the 20th century's most celebrated artists, as well as by Canaletto, Courbet, Picasso, Matisse and Toulouse-Lautrec, an official said.
The paintings were found in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, 79, the reclusive son of art dealer and historian Hildebrandt Gurlitt, who supervised the Nazis' confiscations of art works during the war.
Cornelius Gurlitt, who kept the art works in his Munich apartment, has been under investigation in the past two years in Bavaria for tax evasion. The art works were discovered in February 2012 in a search by German authorities of the home.
Gurlitt's whereabouts are unknown. "We cannot say where the accused is, we do not know ourselves," said Reinhard Nemetz of the public prosecutor's office in Augsburg at a news conference this week.
The authorities have not explained why it took them nearly two years to announce the massive find. The paintings, which were found in generally good condition, are being stored in an undisclosed location and they will not be published online.
Some German and Austrian media have speculated that Gurlitt, who also has a house in Salzburg, is dead. "Maybe they'll find his body at home," Gurlitt's Austrian neighbors told the newspaper Salzburger Nachrichten.
"We've never seen him," a young couple who lives near Gurlitt's Munich apartment told Germany's Focus magazine, which revealed the find last weekend and prompted authorities to go into the open.
Gurlitt's neighbors in Salzburg said they hadn't seen him either. "It took 45 years until I spoke to him for the first time," Mr. Ludescher, a neighbor of the missing art collector for some 50 years, told Focus.
"I asked him if he owned the house and he said 'no comment,' " he said.
The German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported yesterday that some of the Nazi-looted art presented in Munich on Tuesday had been confiscated from Hildebrandt Gurlitt by the Allied Forces in 1945.
After the war Hildebrandt Gurlitt was questioned about his work as an art collector during the war, but in 1950 the paintings were returned to him, the paper reports. He died in 1956 and left the collection to his son Cornelius, who is believed to have sold off some of the works to support himself. The estimated value of the cache is more than 1 billion Euros.